After the question, “Does God exist?” the next most important question a human being can ask is:
“What am I?”
According to the view known as physicalsim, a human being is identical with the material stuff of their bodies. In other words, we are our bodies and nothing more; we are self-aware, animated meat inevitably destined to become dead meat.
The competing view (which I hold), substance dualism, says that man is more than the material sum of his parts. His personal identity is grounded in an immaterial entity commonly referred to as the mind or the soul, which has an interactive relationship with the physical body/brain.
Famous philosophers of the Early Modern/Enlightenment era recognized the centrality of the soul question and some of the major implications of each view. Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the brilliant mathematician and Father of Modern Philosophy, said that if our nature is no different from that of other living things, then “after this life we have nothing to fear or to hope for, any more than the flies and the ants” (Discourse on Method, V). In other words, if we do not have souls that survive the death of our bodies, our existence ends at death, just like that of insects. Descartes was a Christian who strongly endorsed dualism (you may be familiar with the label “Cartesian dualism”).
A contemporary of Descartes’, another renowned mathematician/philosopher, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) also stressed the importance of the soul question: “The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us and which touches us so profoundly that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is…our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject” (Pensees, III.194). He, too, was a dualist and a Christian.
Contrary to what you may be thinking, not every Christian theist is a substance dualist; there are some who believe that we are nothing more than our bodies, that our minds are the sum total of our brain activity, and that we will cease to exist at death. Proponents of this materialist view maintain belief in an afterlife by postulating that the resurrection of believers at the end of all things will involve our reconstitution, complete with our same consciousness and memories. I make note of this alternative view because it nullifies the fallacious accusation, “You’re only a substance dualist because you’re a Christian.” In fact, I hold the substance dualism view because I believe it has far more explanatory power and logical coherence than physicalism. It makes better sense of what we observe about ourselves through introspection and about the external world. That it is less problematic when it comes to understanding biblical anthropology is, of course, a huge bonus for the Christian theist.
Another common misconception is that advances in neuroscience have undermined the case for the soul, or that future progress in neuroscience will close any explanatory gaps that remain. This isn’t the case. Some of the deep problems that plague physicalism cannot be solved by simply understanding the material brain better. They transcend neuroscience.
This concludes Part I of a two-part series. In my next post, I will offer examples of the problems faced by physicalism and give reasons why the soul hypothesis is a superior option for explaining observable reality.